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Playing favorites?

"Playing favorites?" Continued...

Issue: "The Purge," Sept. 12, 2009

Residents at the hearing accused supervisors of being bought by Saudi money. "The board doesn't make decisions based on fears of being sued," objected board chairman Sharon Bulova. "It's not, 'Who's got the deeper pockets?'" Bulova voted against the Saudi school's expansion because of traffic concerns.

Organizations like the Becket Fund and the Anti-Defamation League have worked with religious institutions to fight these battles in court in the past. Bulova said the county created the position of an ombudsman about 10 years ago to help religious and community organizations navigate the bureaucracy. "A church or a synagogue or a mosque-they're not a developer. They may not be as conversant with the land use process," she said.

Eighty-year-old Bob Thoburn, who started the Fairfax Christian School in 1961, zoomed over its current campus in an earthmover, shuttling brush away from dead trees. He paused and shut off the motor for a moment to talk about his frustration with the county zoning practices. "I've been fighting the battle here for 50 years almost," he said.

After the county turned down Fairfax Christian's request, the school sold its campus to ISA and turned to other properties in the area to house its 500 students. When the school tried to reopen at a nearby 65-acre property, the county refused to issue a permit because the land was zoned for residential use. In the meantime, the school met in various area churches. After about seven years of back and forth with the county, the school finally got a permit for the 28-acre property where it now stands-a permit that limits the student population to 250. Beyond losing half its student body when the school was originally trying to expand, it landed in a historic district, so altering anything on the campus is difficult.

Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Va., has encountered similar hostility from the county supervisors-a "nightmarish" experience of "every church and every school that has interaction with the county," said David Stokes, the church's pastor. He said the supervisors' didn't apply the same standards for ISA's expansion. "It's almost a fawning kind of accommodation," he told me. "It's reverse discrimination."

Aside from zoning issues, he too has concerns about what ISA is teaching in its religion classes. The 25-year-old school is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. ISA uses county textbooks for all classes except religion-and those controversial passages have been redacted, according to Nina Shea, a commissioner on USCIRF who has been investigating the school's teaching. But she is still concerned about the silence of the textbooks on the subject of violent jihad.

"Last year they were teaching that it was the most noble act," Shea told me. "The burden is on them to say what they teach about jihad. And they won't answer the phones."

Fairfax Christian's Jo Thoburn says she doesn't want the government to be evaluating private schools' curriculum. "They might not like that we teach creationism here," she said. "That's very bad ground to tread on."

While ISA wouldn't return WORLD's calls, its leaders are in contact with Fairfax Christian, which publicly congratulated the school after the board's approval. The Christian schools and churches know now that it will be harder for the county to say no to them in the future.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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